By Andrea Adelson | LB Indy
About 100,000 new voters who have recently registered to cast ballots in anticipation of next week’s California primary election, where four congressional districts in Orange County are in play.
Despite the bump in voter registration countywide, within the hotly contested coastal 48th Congressional District, which includes Newport Beach and spans Seal Beach to Laguna Niguel, there is little indication that registration efforts have changed the current political landscape.
“There is no blue wave,” candidate and former Republican Party chair Scott Baugh said at a campaign stop at a realtor’s office in Laguna Niguel this week.
He is one of 15 candidates striving for a second place finish in Tuesday’s election and the chance to unseat longtime fellow GOP incumbent Dana Rohrabacher in the November midterm election.
Baugh, of Huntington Beach, described his support for work-permits for immigrants and loosening government regulation.
He also rejected excluding any group from homeownership, a retort to a controversial comment Rohrabacher made last week. Rohrabacher lost the backing of the National Association of Realtors for expressing his support of a homeowner’s decision not to sell property to someone whose lifestyle they disagree with. His comments sparked outrage in the LGBTQ community, ultimately leading the Realtors group revoking their support.
The incident is the latest in a contentious race for the 48th, which has been referred to as a “jungle.”
Of the district’s 388,000 voters, GOP supporters hold a significant advantage with 40.3 percentage points of those registered, compared to Democrats with 30 percentage points, according to May 29 figures from the county registrar. The wild card remains the 25.3 percentage points of voters who decline to state a party preference.
Republican registration within the district has declined from a majority of 51.7 percent in 2004, to 47.4 percent in 2008, 44.83 percent in 2012, and to 40.3 percent currently. Although Rohrabacher did win more than 58 percent of the vote in the 2016 general election against a Democratic challenger.
“That’s not too shabby,” pointed out Mark Petracca, a University of California, Irvine, professor of political science. “Republicans have lost a lot, but Democrats have gained much less than half of what the GOP has lost.”
Instead, the registration of “Decline to State” voters has gone up from 17.36 percent in 2004, to more than a quarter of the electorate today, he explained.
Incumbents seeking re-election have money, name recognition, people used to voting for them and typically a good ground organization, Petracca pointed out. Rohrabacher has withstood challenges for 30 years because the 48th has remained a solidly GOP district for such a long time.
Petracca thinks that’s not the case any more.
“However, the GOP still has a 10 point advantage over the Democrats in the 48th and the likely winner in this race come November is most likely to be a Republican,” Petracca said. “The question is whether it will be Rohrabacher or Baugh.”
Petracca predicted that a Democrat will make it through the primary, where the top two vote getters, regardless of party, go on to compete in November.
Neither of the two strongest Democratic contenders, Harley Rouda and Hans Keirstead, both from Laguna Beach, have held elective office before. And like their two Republican front-runners, the two aggressive Democrats have divided loyalties and presumably votes within their own party infrastructure.
Rohrabacher received the backing of the state GOP party and the county Republican Party, which Baugh formerly led.
Keirstead won the backing of the state and county Democratic Party, while Rouda received a de facto endorsement from the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Party endorsements typically buoy campaigns with their own slate mailings to registered voters. Funding by interests other than the free-spending candidates themselves is now pouring into the district, considered the nation’s sixth most expensive congressional race based on $6.4 million in spending, according to Open Secrets, which tracks campaign spending.
New OC Future PAC, based in McClean, Va., has spent $204,000 since April 21 on anti-Rohrabacher and anti-Rouda ad buys, Federal Election Reports show. The House Majority PAC and Priorities USA Action, both based in Washington, D.C., are underwriting scathing anti-Baugh ads. And the surfer-led PAC Blue Uprising, based in Campbell, used crowd sourcing to erect an anti-Rohrabacher and anti-Baugh billboard that illustrates the candidates ties with Russia. It’s located on Harbor Boulevard near Fountain Valley.
The science-supporting 314 Action Fund, based in Washington, D.C., is spending more than $10,000 on ads contrasting Rouda with Keirstead, campaign manager Kyle Quinn said. Keirstead, a stem cell researcher, supports universal health coverage and transparency in drug pricing.
Each of the leading candidates in District 48 has spent a $1 million or more on the race.
Rouda reports spending $1.6 million since February and receipts of $2.2 million, which includes a $1 million loan from himself, campaign filings show. Keirstead’s disclosure reports $1.4 million in spending and receipts of $1.6 million, including a $750,000 campaign loan by the candidate.
Baugh’s campaign reports spending $871,000, while Rohrabacher has spent $1.4 million.
Petracca predicts it will be Rohrabacher vs. Rouda in November. Even so, he questions whether Rouda can overcome the power of incumbency.
Though he credits Rouda with running a solid campaign, collecting endorsements of Democratic officeholders, “he’s from Laguna Beach which is a pretty different sort of place from the population center of the district, which is located in Huntington Beach,” he pointed out.
Even if two Democrats end up in the race for the state’s highest office, which might depress Republican turnout in the midterm election, Petracca thinks the party split within the 48th district between Democrats and Republicans is too much of an advantage for Rouda to bridge.
Some of the other names on the ballot for the race for the 48th include Republican John Gabbard, a Marine Corps veteran and small businessman from Laguna Beach; Democrat Omar Siddiqui, an attorney from Costa Mesa; Independent Kevin Kensinger, an investment manager from Aliso Viejo; and Libertarian Brandon Reiser, an investment manager from Corona del Mar.
Laura Oatman, a Democratic businesswoman and architect from Newport Beach, dropped out of the race in March and endorsed Rouda.
Newport Beach voters will also consider candidates for the 74th Assembly District race.
Huntington Beach Incumbent Matthew Harper will face Democrats Karina Onofre, Cottie Petrie-Norris, and Ryan Ta, and fellow Republican Katherine Daigle challenging him for the state seat.
Both Onofre and Daigle ran in 2016, with Onofre making it to the November election. She lost to Harper with just under half the votes, with 43.84 percent of voters ticking the box next to her name.
Registered voters in District 74, which includes Costa Mesa, Irvine and Laguna Beach, are 37.7 percent Republican, 31 percent Democratic, and 26.6 percent have no party preference, with the rest making up small percentages in other parties, according to Orange County Registrar.
Harper’s top challenger is the California Democratic Party endorsed Petrie-Norris, who has raised over $125,000, according to state records. Harper has topped that with a reported $161,848.
Also on the ballot for Newport Beach residents to consider is the role of Orange County Supervisor for District 2, which also covers Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, and Seal Beach.
Incumbent Michelle Steel is being challenged by Democratic aerospace executive Brendon Perkins of Huntington Beach and Libertarian technology businessman Michael Mahony of Buena Park for the seat.
NB Indy writer Sara Hall contributed to this story.
*EDITOR’S NOTE* This article originally incorrectly included Democrat Michael Kotick as a current candidate. Kotick dropped out of the race in April. We apologize for the error.